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‘Disturbing and cruel.’ Universities blast new visa rule for international students

*Update, 14 July, 6 p.m.: The Trump administration dropped its proposal to prevent international students from staying in the United States if they are taking all their courses online.

A new U.S. immigration policy announced Monday, which threatens to revoke visas for certain international students if they are not taking in-person classes, is stirring panic and confusion and causing some universities to push back with lawsuits. The policy states that international students who are currently enrolled in online-only programs will need to leave the country immediately or transfer to a school with in-person classes to legally continue their education. The announcement doesn’t explicitly distinguish undergraduate and graduate students—creating uncertainty among science and engineering graduate students who are focused on research and had no plans to enroll in courses this fall.

The policy “is cruel to international students and damaging to America’s scientific leadership,” Sudip Parikh—CEO of AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers)—said in a statement released today. “We urge the administration to reconsider and rescind this guidance.”

Boston University student Mounika Vutukuru, an F-1 visa holder from Canada in the final year of her Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, first heard about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announcement on social media. The rule “essentially makes international students dispensable in this pandemic,” Vutukuru says. “When I saw the news, it started to dawn on me how depressingly coercive this decision is: We have to face the virus regardless of health and safety.”

Vutukuru may be spared that risk in the end. Her school’s international student office informed her Monday that she would be unaffected because she has completed her coursework and only registers for research credits—but she worries the new U.S. policy is too vague to trust that interpretation. “The way it’s written, it’s all based on online versus in-person classes,” she says. “It’s unclear where Ph.D. students who have completed their coursework will fall.”

When U.S. universities shut down earlier this year due to the spreading coronavirus, they moved spring and summer courses to a fully virtual format. During that time, ICE allowed international students on visas to take more online courses than usually permitted. The 6 July announcement revokes this allowance, even though the pandemic has not slowed in the United States. “We were waiting for guidance on the extension of the current waiver, but received this bombshell,” says Andrew Horsfall, assistant dean of international programs at Syracuse University College of Law. “It’s disturbing and cruel.”

The rule applies to students holding nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 visas. ICE isn’t permitting exemptions if there is a surge in COVID-19 cases near a university, causing an in-person or hybrid course to shift to an online-only format midsemester. If that happens, visa holders will need to leave the country, request a medical leave from their universities, or take other steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status. “Given that [ICE has] articulated what could happen later in the fall semester if there’s another shutdown, it signals that they aren’t planning to make changes,” Horsfall says. “That’s what is scary about this rule.”

Vutukuru is waiting things out at her home in Mississauga, Canada, but expects that she will need to return to Boston at some point in the fall; her program requires graduate researchers to be on campus to receive their stipends.

Students forced to return to more-distant homes may face additional challenges, including the risks of travel during a pandemic, the financial burden of flight tickets, broken apartment leases, and additional visa fees when they return to the United States. Some may also find their future career plans derailed. Students on F-1 visas can apply for internships or work experience in the United States at certain points in their degrees. But receiving approval for such training requires that the student must be in the country for the two preceding semesters. “If I’m a senior and I want to work in the U.S. next year, I cannot be abroad for the fall,” says Anupreksha Jain, a Cornell University biological sciences graduate who is currently working as a research technician.

Faculty across the country are rushing to find solutions. On Twitter and social media groups, hundreds of professors have offered independent study courses to international students who face deportation under the new ICE rule. Despite the good intentions, a course designed explicitly for international students to avoid deportation may be perceived as problematic by ICE, which may make students hesitate to sign up and give the appearance of visa fraud. “The risks are greater for us than for American citizens,” Jain says. “It felt like a lot of the tweets offered knee-jerk solutions that weren’t fully informed.”

Students in the University of California system have also banded together, assembling a spreadsheet where U.S. citizens with confirmed in-person courses are offering their spots to international students in need. “It’s amazing to see students stepping into the space to look out for each other,” Horsfall says.  

Universities say they will try to get the new policy changed. As of Wednesday morning, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed lawsuits asking a federal court to prevent ICE from implementing the new policy. But some visa holders, already far from home with few sources of solidarity, fear they have no choice but to adapt to the new ICE rule. “I view it as something incontestable,” Vutukuru says. “It’s hard to fight when this policy affects you—I don’t know many international students who have the agency to do it.”

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